The Ducal One

Masterworks of orchestral jazz, even when they have been definitively recorded by their creators, deserve to be performed in concert. But beyond merely keeping charts alive, orchestras can restore history. Nothing drove this point home more than the American Jazz Orchestra's concert at Cooper Union last Thursday, an all-1940's Duke Ellington program that climaxed with his longest, fullest composition. Black, Brown, and Beige. Just playing this piece correctly -- or any seminal score by Ellington, Herman, Basie Evans, Carter, J. J. Johnson -- would justify the existence of the AJO, but this time they've transcended even that need by finishing what the master architect left undone. Now in its third year, the AJO has topped its eight previous progrnms by restoring one of the greatest works in American music.

It's tempting to portray Maurice Peress, the man responsible for repairing BB&B, as toiling for years to piece it back together. Actually, for the now complete version Peress conducted at Cooper Union, he simply thinned down the overlong first movement ("Black") and beefed up the third ("Beige"). According to Derek Jewell, Ellington wrote the 45 minute epic in about a month (during which time he continued to give his customary two or more shows a day), and then premiered it at his first Carnegie Hall concert in January 1943. Admittediy under-rehearsed and with rough spots, BB&B was shredded by reviewers who thought jazz couldn't sustain such scope. Ellington reacted by tearing the seven sections apart and never again presenting it whole.

Manuscript If ever there was a job for a repertory orchestra, here was a horror to rectify: BB&B is a cathedral in ruins. Ellington called it a "tonal parallel to the history of the American Negro." and as such its music has blood-and-spirit resonances. On the opening "Work Song," kettle drums depict pounding sledge hammers, for instance, and the orchestration even has "a place to grunt." This bleeds into the "Spiritual" (better known as "Come Sunday"), a fluid transition originally borne by Tricky Sam Nanton's trombone. Britt Woodman, who took the part in the '58 Ellington fragment on Columbia and also with the AJO, intoned a plaintive moan that melted into a prayer. Here Ellington lures us into a black church where Johnny Hodges's alto (Norris Turney at the AJO) leads a hymn. From aching muscles to revived spirits, and that constitutes only part of the first movement.

Later sections are equally vivid. "Brown" celebrate the victories of black soldiers from the American Revolution to World War II, while tenor sax Ben Webster (Loren Schoenberg) evokes the civilian home front from slavery to emancipation to Jim Crow. Finally, in the 1940s, "Beige" Harlemites are allowed to enjoy such urbane pleasures as waltzing clarinets in their Sugar Hill penthouses. The vagueness of the original ending has been clarified, as Ellington would've surely done if not for the bad taste in his mouth from the original reviews. BB&B now concludes with a stern reminder that the "Work Song" and the "Spiritual" will always be part of black life. Technically not a suite, a concerto, or a symphony, Ellington uses solo and ensemble horns the way Handel uses voices; you might call BB&B an instrumental oratario.

But even that sounds too serious, too European, for what Ellington and now the AJO have pulled off. With history having proved Ellington right, the AJO could relax and revel in his humor -- like all of Ellington's music, Black, Brown and Beige laughs when it isn't crying. The title alone ridicules the idea of the ghetto pecking order, and he has fun with it, like Cecil B. DeMille at once condemning and glorifying ancient Roman excesses. With typical Ellingtonian perversity, the seven sections are overtly representationaI, but then the single most abstract sequence turns out to be the one with words: "The Blues," sung hieroglyphics with no Rosetta Stone. And, making perfect sense when you follow Ellington's logic, it's not even a blues.


This essay was originally appeared in the VILLAGE VOICE, March 15, 1988.

Portrait of Duke Ellington. By Brian Byrd, Illustrator